Some time ago, since I live in the Chicago area, I had requested permission to take a tour of the Tinley Park FOG facility. I was finally able to take that tour on Thursday morning. It was very interesting to me, opening my eyes to a few things that I didn't know. I want to thank everyone at KVH for the tour and the friendly treatment I received.|
The facility is located in a pleasant low-rise building in a fairly new Industrial Park in the southern end of Tinley Park Illinois. They currently rent 24,000 square feet of the 100,000 square foot building, sharing with another company. They have been there about two years, moving a short distance from where they were located as a part of Andrew corporation. They seem to have plenty of physical room for expansion.
In 1997 KVH acquired the assets of the fiber optic sensor group ("FOG") of the Andrew Corporation in order to enhance the capabilities of its existing sensor systems. This move is proving to be one of the best investments that KVH ever made. KVH was aware at the time of the sale that there was still 1-2 years developmental work to do in the technology, but Andrew was selling THEN, and so that's when the deal was completed. The developmental work and the work to integrate FOG technology into the KVH products are now behind them.
The technology originally took over 10 years to develop and another 5+ to commercialize. Corning is the main manufacturer of optical fiber, and has many patents on it. In the 1970s a Dr Richard Dyott did some work for Andrew corporation to develop an alternative process for specialty fiber. The fiber and processes are covered by multiple patents, which KVHI now holds.
Special optical fiber is made here, called "D" fiber. There are two basic types of fiber, multi-mode, which has a large core and allows multiple "modes" of light to travel through it, and single-mode, which has a small core and only allows one mode of light to travel through it. If you would like to learn more fiber basics, here is an excellent overview:
KVH's "D" fiber is a special form of single-mode fiber, with an elliptical core. The fiber itself is only about 80 microns thick (about the thickness of a human hair), but the core is only 1 micron by 3 microns. The fiber is pressure sensitive, so KVH applies two coatings to it a soft coating for protection from temperature "pressures" and a hard coating. With the two coatings the fiber is about 240 microns. Even so, the fiber is still very fine and hard to see, like a medium thread. The fiber is called "D" because one part of the circular fiber (viewed on end) is cut off straight near the core and looks like a capital "D". They also make an "E" fiber, but I did not find out much about it.
KVH has an excellent and interesting tutorial on their FOGs off their web site. Use this link, then click on "fiber optic gyros" near the bottom, then click on "find out more" and page through the foils.
The FOG development process.
The tutorial gives a good overview of the technology involved, but not HOW the gyros and fiber are made. I got to see this process close up. What surprised me the most was how manually intensive and specialized the production process is.
The fiber production was not in operation during my tour, and is apparently in operation only a small portion of the time. Much of the fiber production components are special order parts with long lead times (up to « year), so, when they were moving to their present facility from Andrew Corporation, they first ran off what they thought was about 12 months worth of fiber, in case they had a component problem in the move. Well, they overestimated the speed of the market demand for FOGs and the inventory turned out to be two years' worth, and they are just using up the last of it now, so they don't produce that much fiber currently.
They currently have one production system in place that has a capacity for about 20,000 FOGs per year. There is room to add at least one additional fiber production system if needed.
I was then shown several stages in the process, of which I don't remember all the details, but many of the steps are manual. Most of the manual efforts are simply involved with loading fibers into automated equipment. Overall, actual labor content of the product is actually quite low as many of the operations used to make components are automated. This is due to the inability of an operator to see or stabilize certain manual operations. After operators handle and chuck the fiber into rigs, automated equipment takes over to complete the operations. Further automation of operations can be implemented as volume increases to warrant it. Fiber handling is inherently different than producing circuit cards, cars or cookies, where the manufacturing process occurs in factories with conveyors running through automated assembly. I saw many "trays" and "platters" containing fiber and FOGs in various stages of production. This link about splicing is similar to what I saw:
At one point, the assembly of the fiber and lasers for just one FOG took up a whole work bench while an operator worked on connections. Alignment of the fiber is critical and is complex to do. An error of even « micron can reduce the light transmission tremendously. The "D" share of the fiber helps alignment mechanically. A good general explanation of coupler and connector issues can be found here:
Total production currently is only 8-16 FOGs per day, or only about 2,000-4,000 per year. Most of the FOGs are now the 2000 type, which sells for about $2,600, instead of the 1000 type which sells around $1,200-$1,500. However they have adequate space to scale this up, as orders increase, and they currently only operate one shift. Like anything else, scaling can only go so far until a bottleneck is hit, then they can scale further until another bottleneck once they get past that, and so on. We did not discuss what these bottlenecks were, but apparently they have thought about them in some detail (which is good because it implies they hope to run into them <g>). Fiber production does not appear to limit them at all at this time.
One of the facts mentioned was that KVH is running a 100% success rate in laser pigtailing (see my link above for definition), and they do have a high yield in all production areas due to their attention to quality and commitment to ISO 9001.
SCALING OF PRODUCTION
I asked about their ability to scale up their operations. The answer was that for the most part, this is simply an equipment issue. Doubling or tripling output can be done simply by increasing a few areas' work cells. Most of the production areas have excess machine capacity, but they produce only what is needed for current shipments. They maintain very short turnaround times (typically 24 hours) with low inventories due to the modular design of their product. For non-fiber-producing areas, the lead time for equipment is short or even off the shelf, with the most sensitive areas of fixturing of their own design and made locally as needed. Even larger increases can be made with the incorporation of further automation that they have designed.
I asked about competitors. The only competitor mentioned was Hitachi, but they cannot sell to the military, and they use fiber from Corning, so if there are any changes in specs that they would like, they have to "convince" Corning to make them, which can take time and effort, whereas KVH has full control over all aspects of the process. Hitachi does have access to Japanese Keiretsu's, including the auto makers, so they have an easier "in" with them than KVH does with US auto makers.
I asked about the automobile market. The answer was that currently they like to go with the cheapest, simplest technology available, and currently the precision of KVHI products is not needed. However, further down the road when multiple auto systems (such as steering, braking, odometer, position sensing, plus entertainment etc) are tied into a single gyro system, the market for KVH products may open up.
I did not see any of the current sensors, but I did find out they have shipped product. They have been under joint development with a European company, and they are still in the final stages of "tweaking" the product in terms of size, packaging, etc.
OTHER MARKETS FOR SENSORS
I asked about other markets for sensors. Three that we discussed were trains, agricultural and "auto guided vehicles", but the general answer was "anywhere there can be a need to know positioning or to precisely measure angular rotation".
My tour guide was particularly eager to talk about auto guided vehicles. I didn't know much about this so I asked for more details. These are special vehicles, typically in factories that do automated jobs such as material movement, loading, unloading etc. Older systems used to work off of wires embedded in the concrete floor. This of course proved difficult to change when the route needed changing. <g>. Newer systems use radio frequency, or KVH's Continuous Positioning System (CPS) coupled with software. Basically, by knowing three pieces of information, 1) where you are (GPS), 2) change of direction or plane (FOGs), and 3) distance moved (odometer), repeatable routes can be developed. The heart of this system is the gyro.
It is important to note that GPS does NOT work indoors unless specifically configured to do so. CPS is used exclusively in OUTDOOR vehicle applications, almost always WITH an operator. The KVH FOG is used in autonomous vehicles in conjunction with other sensors such as RF, lasers and Doppler radar in order to navigate properly INDOORS. Material handling, factory delivery, and floor cleaning vehicles are typical INDOOR robotic-type applications where KVH FOGs are incorporated to provide navigation capabilities.
Not just factories were mentioned either. The example of an automated vehicle in hospitals, delivering prescriptions or other items was mentioned. Anywhere people can be displaced by automated mobile systems there appears to be a market.
This part involves having the positioning systems on locomotives, and particularly on "rail yard" locomotives, so that exact positioning of each train, down to which track it is on in the yard, can be known. The GPS signal is often lost or even "distorted", giving incorrect position information. The CPS, which is a FOG integrated with a GPS receiver and the vehicle's odometer/reverse, can determine when the GPS signal is invalid. The FOG then "takes over" and provides a dead-reckoning capability. It takes the last best GPS position information as it's starting point, measures any changes in heading, and integrates this with the distance traveled. It then provides this information to the GPS when the signal returns, providing uninterrupted positioning. The CPS is also used on trains as they travel on the tracks to determine exactly where track maintenance must be performed.
It wasn't immediately evident to me how FOGs fit into agriculture. Picture a farmer in a large field, about to plant a "row crop" such as corn. The farmer starts steering as straight as he can, but if his attention wanders even a moment, or a rock or other unevenness in the field is encountered his path can alter a bit to the left or right. Looking back, each row is no longer straight but "wavy". Later the farmer has to go back over the same field to fertilize, cultivate or harvest the crop. He needs to follow the same path as exactly as possible.
Enter the FOG with a system designed for tractors, combines and other farm equipment. Now the farmer just starts off in the initial direction and then let's the auto system take over to steer the farm vehicle straightly. At the end of each row, the farmer manually turns into the next row. Everything is recorded onto a computer disk. Once the route is completed, the entire route can be retraced automatically from the data contained on the disk, and used in various farm equipment.
KVH is working with virtually every agricultural and heavy vehicle manufacturer, as well as several universities, to develop an auto-steer capability that uses FOGs to assist in vehicle navigation.
FOGs can detect and measure very small amounts or angular rotation. Any application that has very stringent stability requirements, such as a large antenna pointing at a satellite, or a camera or other optical device mounted on a building or even a moving vehicle, can benefit from FOG technology. The FOG senses any "movement", however large or minute, and immediately feeds this information into a servo-mechanism. The servo counteracts the motion measured by the FOG, keeping the platform completely stable.
I was very pleased with the tour, and I want to again thank KVH for allowing my visit. The tour was a real eye opener as well, and what I saw reaffirms my opinion that KVHI has tremendous future markets in the sensor area waiting to be developed and tapped.
In his radiowallstreet interview last week, CEO Martin Kits van Heyningen talks about the Fiber Optic group of KVH which "right now is the smallest part of our company today, but we think that eventually this will be the largest of the three segments".
After taking the tour today and doing the surfing required to build this post, I have no doubts whatsoever about the truth of this statement.